Monday, July 6, 2009

Toronto ARCs it up, finally

I nearly fell off my chair when I read this earlier today at work. The Toronto District School Board chair 'announced' the board will likely strike up to 20 accommodation review committees once school resumes this fall.
The explanation for why I almost tumbled will come in a couple of graphs... first, a few links to what was written. The story I saw was Moira MacDonald's column in Monday's Sun. I've just spent another 10 minutes looking for any other story online among the usual suspects and came up empty-- please mail me links if you find other stories and I'll add them. (Toronto Star story)
The declining enrolment crisis has been growing at the TDSB for more than a decade with 16 schools closed between 1998 and 2002 and a technical school closed last month. Toronto's Catholic board -- one-third the size -- has closed 21 schools. About one in five -- or 110 -- of the TDSB's 558 schools are below 60% of their enrolment capacity and on average are half-enrolled or less. The school board's overall enrolment is forecast to drop by another 20,000 students over the next 10 years -- the equivalent of about 44 elementary schools with 450 students each.
The board's new director, Chris Spence, agrees the board needs to confront the serious issue but also told me in an interview last week that creating "schools within a school" -- that is, housing several small schools or school programs under one roof -- could be part of the solution.
No question -- school closures are not fun, even when the reality of dwindling enrolment is staring you in the face. But the costs of the TDSB carrying its current portfolio of schools is hurting everybody through the financial drain that is spread among all schools struggling to stay lit, heated, cleaned and well-maintained on provincial grants meant to support a much smaller group of buildings.
Tell us something the rest of Ontario doesn't already know.
Which is why I almost fell off my chair. I have been reporting on school closures since my first day on the job as a reporter -- even earlier as I wrote about them while still at Carleton University -- and have been covering ARCs since the ministry said 'go.' Many districts are into their second, if not almost their third round of accommodation reviews under these guidelines, released over two years ago. An updated version was quietly posted in June.
Pre-ARC (and possibly post, if the District School Board of Niagara hires Watson and Associates Ltd.), Watson told the Thames Valley District School Board it had the second-highest 'school vacancy' rate in the province. Guess who had the highest (in 2006)? Uhuh, the TDSB. School closures and ARCs were never going to become real to the movers and shakers in this province until the Ministry of Education cut off the revolving slush fund that "saves" the TDSB budget every year and its trustees were forced to look at some of their undercapacity schools.
I'm actually looking forward to any coverage that comes out of these potential reviews. It'll allow the rest of us across the province to learn that one's attachment to and engagement in a small-school community is more universal than many in small-school communities outside urban centres would like to acknowledge. It will allow Toronto to learn more about what happens in the schools under review. It will allow, if committees and trustees are creative, an opportunity to revitalize school facilities (admittedly fewer of them, however) in the areas of the city that likely need it the most.
It'll allow the rest of us to hopefully see Torontonians make the same errors, strike the same 'save our school' campaigns and live the ARC experience so many have already been a part of in our communities.
Hopefully the Toronto media (if not the bigger outlets, at least the community papers and other media) doesn't disappoint.
Bring it on.


Anonymous said...

ER - I've done some follow-up on the Moira MacDonald story and it turns out that the TDSB hasn't closed a single school, with the exception of Timothy Eaton(a commerce school I understand), since 2001.

Why is that do you think?

I'm especially ticked that throughout Ontario boards like mine and yours have busted their butts going through accommodation reviews and closing schools in what now appears to be a disproportional rate compared to the two Toronto boards.

Either the small/rural boards are being smart, effective public servants, or the rest of Ontario has been had...BIG TIME!

I also must wonder whether because current education Minister was once a trustee with the TDSB, that they get special consideration and less pressure put on them than other boards.

While I do believe that some schools need to close I have to believe also that boards outside of the Big Smoke are unnecessarily closing schools.

How many of the same communities closing schools have banded together to market their region's small towns and small schools?

In my region people are making small towns their homes and they expect those small schools will be there.

educ8m said...

Agree Anon!

The Toronto Catholic Board completed their AR at this time last year. Since they are under Ministry control, they are waiting for herself to decide what closes, who moves or merges, and what new school gets built to replace the old crumbling one left to house the remainder.

This is not new to Toronto and the TDSB formed the "arms-length" Toronto Lands Corp to figure out what to do with surplus property. I expect they will take over the job for the closed schools once they are decided upon.

Why is TDSB in this mess? Well, they have a bunch of trustees who refused to make tough desicions (remember when you were one of those trustees Mdme. Minister?) and a weak, interim director who did not provide guidance. That may change with new director Spence and a bleak fiscal reality coming home to roost.

Education Reporter said...

The TDSB has always had political influence its counterparts across the province would kill for, regardless of who was minister. Think back to the Pupatello and Kennedy days in this government, and even the Tory ministers previous. It's the centre of this province's political sphere. To get the chair (and subsequently, today) and a trustee agreeing the board finally needs to tackle its vacant space is a huge step.
As written originally, I also believe it will be very instructional for the rest of us watching on the sidelines.


Anonymous said...

This goes back to the removal of the ability of boards to tax locally. Those of us who worked in rural boards at the time briefly lived under the illusion that we would start getting more money as the playing field was levelled. Instead, large urban boards were nailed with the same level of funding we had always 'enjoyed'. They had an impossible time dealing with this, so it's not surprising that the boards that were put under financial supervision were exactly those boards. Now they are starting to deal with the the now decade-old financial reality, with one significant difference - the real estate they own is worth huge amounts of money compared to rural property. Selling a school at the corner of University and College is going to earn them somewhat more than selling a school in rural Oxford County...

Anonymous said...

anon. 18:45 - good points, but doesn't it all become moot because technically fewer students should be costing those larger boards less to educate during the boom and tax times?

Similarly the growing boards we see now are getting more cash because they're generating more students.

Seems to me that the TDSB has always lagged and dragged its feet.

One thing I never agreed on was amalgamating boards. No, check that...I hated the idea! I think it's hurt small communities that used to be close to the decision-making and decision-makers.

Somethings missing these days and it's not always about money, there's a mental shift that should be happening re: governance that isn't.

Education Reporter said...

It's not always the size of the board, it's how it's run.
History is an important tutor here-- the most local school boards ever were the old township boards, and even they closed schools and screwed up their financials. Attending the EWA conference was a great weekend lesson in how these local districts present more problems than solutions in some cases.
When the county boards were created in the 1960s, they too amalgamated and closed schools-- this was the end of the one- and two-room school era. It's many of the schools replacing these one- and two-room schools that are now being listed for closure 40 years later.
Anon 18:45 has a point (and is obviously local to me) in saying the funding formula was set at impractical levels when it was created, forcing boards with above-median programs and below-median capacities to make difficult choices (or avoid them and pray for a bailout). However, restoring the ability to tax will only bring out all the old inequities, where the public systems in urban areas get lots of cash and those in rural and northern get a pittance.
Plus, as one trustee here reminds me, back in those days the crowds protesting closures today would have formed a significant piece of the audience yelling and screaming against a levy increase...

educ8m said...

ER--You said it! It's not the size of the board, it's how it's run is bang on.

I know of a few boards in this province that run pretty well--reasonable student achievment, no debt, and they manage to keep costs in line considering that they have huge salary and benefit pressures.

They have responsible boards of trustees who are good managers and who can appoint good directors. The problem with boards that get into trouble? They get too political or each trustee tries to protect personal turf instead of doing what's right for the whole board. They fail to hire the right director, they micromanage and don't let him/her carry out board policy.

Unknown said...

Here's another link.